Shigeru Miyamoto is the creator of many of Nintendo’s iconic video game franchises, including Mario, Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda.
Born in Kyoto, Miyamoto graduated with a degree in industrial design, he originally sought a career as a manga artist. Through a mutual friend, Miyamoto’s father got him an interview with Hiroshi Yamauchi – the 3rd president of Nintendo.
After impressing Yamauchi with the toys he made, Miyamoto was hired and he joined Nintendo in 1977 while he was 24.
Miyamoto became the first artist in Nintendo, his breakthrough came after an arcade game called Radar Scope failed in America. The failed game left Nintendo with 2,000 unsold arcade cabinets in America, Miyamoto was tasked to design a new game to replace Radar Scope.
The game he came up with was Donkey Kong, in which he invented a set of characters inspired by Popeye, Bluto & Olive. The hero was a carpenter named Jumpman, his girlfriend Pauline had been kidnapped by Donkey Kong, literally means “stubborn gorilla” in Japanese.
Donkey Kong debuted in 1981 and to their surprise, the game was a huge hit.
Before Donkey Kong, which was the first game I directed, programming and hardware engineers were responsible for game design. Those were the days when these engineers were even composing the music and drawing the pictures themselves, weren’t they terrible?
When I was first involved in game design as a graphic designer, I used to boast to myself that I was one of the five best game designers in the world. This is because there were very few designers involved in game design back then!
Jumpman was renamed to Mario, because of his resemblance to the landlord of Nintendo’s warehouse in America, this is the birth of Mario.
Mario was partnered with his brother Luigi in Miyamoto’s next game – Mario Bros, the game was set in the sewers with turtles coming out from the green pipes. That’s why Mario would be a plumber because of all the pipes, he’s sort of representative of everyone, kind of a blue-collar hero.
Mario, of course, went on to bigger things.
Following a series of arcade game successes in the early 1980s, Nintendo released a cartridge-based console called the Family Computer a.k.a. Famicom. Famicom was remodelled and marketed as Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) outside of Japan, featuring a number of groundbreaking games.
Super Mario Bros – a sequel to Mario Bros, was the game that sold the machine. The game took a linear approach, dodging enemies while collecting the magic mushroom to rescue the princess who has been kidnapped by an evil turtle.
Mario and Luigi are rather small in size but when they get a mushroom, they grow big and become “Super Mario” and “Super Luigi”. Super Mario became so popular because the actions in the game are something that are innate to humans – jumping across the gap, afraid of falling from height.
Nintendo then released Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda, which is a non-linear gameplay, forcing the player to think their way through riddles and puzzles. The game’s imaginary world, called Hyrule, was in many ways based on Miyamoto’s outdoor adventures during his childhood.
In both games, Miyamoto decided to focus more on gameplay rather than high scores, unlike many other games back then.
The original Super Mario Bros was the best-selling video game of all time, until being surpassed by Wii Sports more than 20 years later. The Super Mario Bros franchise has sold more than 240 million units, and that’s not including Mario Kart, Mario Party, and other offshoots.
Besides producing game titles, Miyamoto played a major role in the development of the Wii, a console that popularized motion control gaming.
In the past decade, Miyamoto was producing fewer game titles but focusing on supervisory roles instead, he was appointed the position of “Creative Fellow” in 2015. Miyamoto was then tasked to become the Nintendo representative for Super Nintendo World, a theme park in collaboration with Universal Studios.
In 2018, it was announced that Miyamoto would be working as a producer on the Super Mario movie by Illumination.
Miyamoto has been a superstar in the gaming world for decades, but neither he nor the company seems inclined to exploit his stardom. They contend that the development of a game or a game console is a collaborative effort, Miyamoto is guarded about his private life and does not appear on Japanese TV.
When I first decided to go to work for a company, I wanted to create things, I was looking for a company to sponsor me so that I could create the things that I wanted. Because as an artist, that’s really what you want – you want someone to sponsor you as an artist.
The best situation is, as an artist, the company gives you the freedom to create what you want, and the company is able to generate profit off of what you create. You’ve then got the freedom to use as much of that profit as you want to create your next thing.
So I’ve never had a reason to leave the company.
At the Game Developers Choice Awards in 2007, Miyamoto received the Lifetime Achievement Award. Miyamoto was awarded Japan’s Person of Cultural Merit in 2019 in recognition for his contributions towards Japan’s video game industry.
Time called Miyamoto “the Spielberg of video games” and “the father of modern video games”. The New Yorker described Mario as the first folk hero of video games, with as much influence as Mickey Mouse.
Walt Disney didn’t create everything that Disney put out, but the idea that a company could make these long-lasting symbols – that’s something I’ve admired.
We’re finally at a point where people who played with Nintendo’s characters as children, are playing with those same characters with their children. That longevity is special.